WHITEFISH – In the Class A girls state semifinals last year, Whitefish ran into its old nemesis Billings Central and was soundly defeated 5-0. Central went on to win its second straight state title.
Then on Sept. 3 of this season, the Lady Bulldogs once again ran into Central, losing 2-1.
It’s a familiar theme: Whitefish keeps running into Central and running through everybody else.
After the Central defeat, Whitefish didn’t lose another game for the rest of September. The Bulldogs put their 10-1 (7-0 conference) record on the line against rival Columbia Falls on Oct. 9, but their streak finally ended.
Columbia Falls won 3-1, bringing its record to 10-2 (7-1), tied with Whitefish for first in Northwestern A. With the regular season over, Northwestern A’s top three teams are Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Bigfork, who all advance to the playoffs. Bigfork is 4-7 (3-5).
The first round of the Class A boys and girls state soccer tournaments is on Oct. 16, the semifinals are on Oct. 23 and the championship is scheduled on Oct. 30. The Northwestern A qualifying teams for boys are No. 1 Polson, No. 2 Libby and No. 3 Whitefish.
Erin Morrison, the Whitefish girls head coach, said the loss to Central in early September gave her girls extra motivation through the season and reminded them they could be beaten, a reality that was reinforced with the loss to Columbia Falls.
While Columbia Falls and other teams have proven themselves to be formidable contenders for the state title, the Bulldogs know it could come down to beating Central once again. Junior forward Natalie Gayner, who is second in Class A in points, said that would be just fine.
“That’s always been the team to beat,” Gayner said. “In my high school career we’ve never beaten them.”
Before losing to Columbia Falls, Whitefish had scored 20 goals in its previous two games while showing off a defense as dynamic as the offense. During the regular season, Whitefish outscored opponents 58-14, including 40-9 in conference games.
Gayner’s 42 points trail only Libby’s Jaime Gilden, who has 45. Gayner has scored 16 goals and dished out 10 assists. Caitlin Charlebois of Bigfork also has 42 points – 18 goals and six assists.
Along with Gayner, Whitefish’s other three captains are junior midfielder Michela Millette, junior midfielder Sam Dittman and senior midfielder Jordan Carper. Dittman has 11 assists, second most in the state.
“They’re doing a great job,” Morrison said of her captains. “All together, they form a complete leadership. That’s why I picked four.”
Whitefish won state titles in 2001 – the first year Class A had its own league – and 2006. The boys have won three titles.
Morrison, in her second year as head coach, is trying to bring the Bulldogs back to the top. Last season, her team finished 7-5-2, ending with the semifinal loss to Central.
Morrison played college soccer at Notre Dame de Namur University in San Francisco. She later coached at the college and played professionally in Sweden. But she fell in love with Montana on a ski trip to Whitefish and when the high school head coaching job opened up, she took it.
“This is what I’m supposed to do – I’m supposed to coach,” Morrison said.
The second-year coach said she has a reputation for being tough on running, though she is careful to implement “soccer-related” running drills. These types of drills involve the intermixing of sprinting, jogging and walking.
“In soccer, the muscles need to be ready to go in a second,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the conditioning has paid off in games, as has the girls’ ability to combine their individual talents into a streamlined team effort. And Morrison said the arrival of German exchange student Charlotte Kamrath has bolstered an already deep squad.
“They’re very fit and they’re letting the ball do the work – one touch, two touches,” Morrison said. “They’re anticipating the pass. It’s really clicking for us.”
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